There will be mixed feelings in the eventing community regarding the wholesale exoneration of Jock Paget and Kevin McNab for their reserpine doping offences at Burghley 2013.

Many people will be feeling terrible that the pair were grounded for so long, their reputations on knife-edge, all for nothing after the supplier of the herbal supplement they’d used for several years admitted he probably used an ingredient contaminated with the banned sedative.

Some still want to believe they were culpable. I will spare their blushes, but one very distinguished owner of four-star horses has told me several times they will “walk away from the sport if Jock and Kevin get off.” Looking at cases since 2010, statistically there was a less than one in 25 chance Paget and McNab’s defence would succeed. The last person to do it was British endurance rider Christine Yeoman. It may be coincidence, but Paget hired her lawyer – a Brit called Jeremy Dickerson.

The facts remain that the FEI Tribunal, a genuinely independent body, concluded the pair had used the product in good faith for some considerable time, without producing a positive test. New Zealand team manager Erik Duvander said he’d been “comfortable” with Paget’s feeding of LesstressE, the offending herbal calmer. This went back to at least Aachen 2010, where Clifton Promise returned the first of several negative results since routinely consuming this product.

They had done all the right things, checked its ingredients with all the right governing bodies and had no reason to suspect it contained anything dodgy. The Tribunal observed that if their use of LesstressE had been a more recent, one-off activity they might have taken a slightly different view. But it seems LesstressE has been a previously blameless content of their tack-boxes and is routinely used by other big names too.

Having proved no fault, no negligence, a pretty rare achievement, Paget and McNab escaped a minimum two-year ban. Delve deeper, though, into their 30-page decision notices – twice the usual length for a doping Tribunal – and there are shades of grey as well as black and white.

Jeremy Dickerson tells me he was disappointed by the FEI’s “poor accusation” that Paget had later spiked LesstressE with Indian Snakeroot to account for the reserpine, and its inference that the reserpine detected in the Burghley samples came from a different source. The decision notice reveals the FEI alleged Paget had a “strong motivation” to do this, having admitted Clifton Promise was “highly strung.”

It appears this line taken by the FEI, and the determination of its legal department to shore it up, is partly what held up the hearing. Dickerson says the FEI really “threw the book at us.” The main hearing finally took place on June 3rd, by which time the riders had been grounded for eight months.

Expert evidence was also given about the possibilities for “illicit” use of reserpine via an infra-muscular injection of Rakelin, which can be bought on-line. Rakelin is not licensed for use in the UK, where both riders have their permanent homes. However, while the FEI argued the riders had kept no reliable records of when they fed LesstressE, equally there was not a shred of evidence that reserpine had ever been nefariously acquired or dosed from another source.

A number of major names were also mentioned in dispatches, including Joe Meyer who has since vehemently denied ever recommending LesstressE to Jock. Meyer says he only found out from press reports that he was named in proceedings. This too poses questions about the legal process and the hearsay involvement of third parties who are not invited to Tribunal to confirm or deny.

The Tribunal did recognise that the LesstressE had been given for horse-behavioural reasons – which the FEI argued in itself was a deliberate attempt to influence performance and thereby warranted punishment. In some previous cases, the Tribunal itself has taken that stance.

You also have to ask what on earth Paget and McNab were thinking of, using a hand-made product, when they are elite riders operating in an ever more sophisticated world of doping control.

Surely the NZ high performance operation has enough funding to stump up for something more mainstream if it agrees its rising star is entitled to feed calmers during the competition season?

In the 2010 no fault, no negligence case of Yeoman, a faulty product containing the banned pig fattener ractopamine had at least come from a properly-licensed feed producer in the USA. In the recent morphine cases in the UK racing industry, attributed to rogue poppy seeds, an ingredients supplier again admitted fault, and the manufacturer was a reputable company signed up to a Naturally Occuring Prohibited Substance (NOPS) protocol. NOPS was introduced by the UK trade body in 2009 and this was its only slip-up to date.

Yet the maker of LesstressE revealed, under a two-hour cross-examination, that he mixed it on his kitchen table using a “wooden spoon and plastic bowl;” that he was unsure if his ingredient suppliers were aware of the International Equestrian Federation (FEI)’s banned substances list; and never kept any batch samples and carried out no quality control. This would be enough to invalidate any product liability insurance – though to date we have not heard if compensation from the manufacturer is being sought.

Of 12 bottles recalled from other riders and tested after the Clifton horses case unravelled, 10 contained traces of reserpine. Incredibly, LesstressE was still for sale on the website of maker Trinity Consultants for £17, described as free from FEI prohibited substances, the day the Tribunal published their decision – though has now disappeared from its listings.

Frances Stead, owner of Clifton Promise and Clifton Pinot, has bewailed that Jock was denied the chance to go for the Rolex Grand Slam at Kentucky, following his 2013 Badminton and Burghley wins.

This is not quite true. When a rider is exonerated of blame in a doping Tribunal, even if he deserves canonisation he remains disqualified from the relevant competition. Jock was always going to sacrifice his Burghley win; his horse did not win fair and square because of the performance-enhancing product in its system. That is the FEI rule.

Whether there will now be calls for a rule-change remains to be seen.

Disqualification of the doped winner is deemed fair on the other competitors – but is it really fair on the winner when these specific circumstances apply? Dickerson thinks not, especially as he believes the incidence of feed contamination is more rife than is generally believed. When he represented Yeoman four years ago, his first experience with the FEI, his researches already suggested “five or six” earlier doping cases could have run this defence.

The FEI is aligned to the WADA (World Anti-Doping Agency) code which from 2015 increases the minimum ban from two years to four. The FEI has not yet revealed if it will adhere, but if it does the consequences are grave indeed for riders who are genuine victims of slapdash feed manufacture and who don’t have a Dickerson fighting their corner.